A few weeks ago, Harvey Weinstein was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Now he is a ruined mogul, accused of crude, sexually predatory behavior. Top officials at the Weinstein Company (soon to not be the Weinstein Company, or perhaps any company at all), including Weinstein’s brother, Bob, say they had no idea what was going on for decades behind closed doors. Let’s put aside for now the dubious credibility of these claims of ignorance. What is undeniably true is that Harvey Weinstein’s abhorrent public behavior, toward men and women, in front of witnesses, should have forced his business partners to take serious action against him years ago. If they had, it’s possible that many people would have been saved from his attacks, including the women he assaulted in private — and the spectacular dissolution of the Weinstein Company wouldn’t be a business school case study in how ignoring the bad acts of a key employee can wipe out the whole operation.
Weinstein has physically assaulted multiple men — Bob knows, because he was one of them. Harvey Weinstein berated, humiliated and threatened subordinates, colleagues and others in notorious spittle-flecked tirades. In a 2002 New Yorker profile, Ken Auletta described Weinstein as “a man with little self-control, whose tone of voice and whose body language can seem dangerous; at times, he appears about to burst with fury, his fists closed, his teeth clenched, his large head shaking as he loses the struggle to contain himself.” Weinstein used his power and connections to intimidate and retaliate against anyone who dared to cross or try to expose him. He didn’t just promote his own films, he also regularly leaked to the press damaging information about people who opposed him.
Yes, Weinstein was a creative and marketing genius; he collected Oscar nominations with the same facility with which he collected victims. As long as he made hits, those in a position to stop him ignored, excused or denied what was going on. “He’s known for this outrageous behavior,” says Robert Sutton, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University and the author of “The No Asshole Rule,” a book about destructive people in the workplace and how to deal with them. “People who are very powerful and profitable, as a society we give them permission to act that way, especially if they’re rich.”
But there are inherent dangers in that license, especially for the companies that employ such people, and especially if they are high-ranking. The business professors and employment lawyers I spoke to all told me that Weinstein’s public behavior was so aberrant that he put everything he built — including Miramax, led by the Weinstein brothers until 2005, and the Weinstein Company, which they founded that same year — in jeopardy.
Even now, as high-ranking executives claim ignorance of Weinstein’s sexual violations, no one’s denying knowledge of his public physical assaults, which also reach back decades and follow a pattern. Producer Alan Brewer recounted to The Washington Post one episode from early in Weinstein’s career, circa 1984. Weinstein became enraged when he couldn’t locate Brewer for a few hours on the day before a premiere, and when Weinstein finally found him, as The Post reported, Weinstein “lunged at him and began punching him in the head, Brewer said; the skirmish tumbled into the corridor and then the elevator. By the time Brewer reached the street, intent on never associating with the Weinsteins again, he said, Harvey was pleading for him to stay.”
Journalist Rebecca Traister recently wrote for New York magazine about an encounter with Weinstein that she and her then-boyfriend, fellow journalist Andrew Goldman, had in 2000. The pair went to a book party Weinstein was hosting at a New York hotel, and Traister asked Weinstein about whether his studio was withholding a movie for political reasons. Weinstein began screaming epithets at her, and when Goldman tried to intervene, Weinstein pushed him down a set of steps and dragged him outside in a headlock. Dozens of photographers snapped away, but Traister wrote that no photos have ever surfaced.
Although Weinstein appears to have regularly bullied his way toward effective damage control, his volatile temperament was widely known. The television series “Entourage,” for instance, parodied his outbursts through a character called “Harvey Weingard.”
And this past week, the Wall Street Journal described a Weinstein Company executive conference gone bad: “In about 2011, after an argument over how to allocate the studio’s resources between their respective movies, Harvey Weinstein punched his brother in the face in front of about a dozen other Weinstein Co. executives, knocking him to the ground, said two people who were present. ‘I’ve been assaulted!’ Bob yelled, according to those people. Bob, who was bloodied, wanted to press charges, but was talked out of it, according to a person familiar with the incident.”
Bob Weinstein recently recounted to the Hollywood Reporter what being his brother’s partner was like: “Harvey was a bully, Harvey was arrogant, he treated people like s--- all the time. . . . I had to clean up for so many of his employee messes.” But that clean-up, by Bob Weinstein’s account, often involved telling people: “Leave. Leave, please leave.” All the experts I consulted concurred that allowing workplace violence, and telling abused employees to get out, is the wrong corporate response. (Bob himself has been characterized by the Wall Street Journal as a volatile bully, if less abusive than his older brother.)
Christine Porath, a business professor at Georgetown University and the author of “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace,” says the costs of such leaders are enormous. Terrified employees don’t perform well; turnover is constant and costly.
Jennifer Drobac, a law professor at Indiana University who studies sexual harassment and corporate law, says a reaction like Bob Weinstein’s to such incidents “sends a message: Either the company endorses this behavior or they don’t care.” She notes that there are commonly accepted terms for the behaviors Harvey Weinstein openly engaged in at work — physical assault, verbal harassment and threats — and applying those labels makes clear just how derelict his companies were in not addressing what was going on. She said this neglect put everything associated with the Weinstein brand at serious risk of the kind of legal and reputational blowback that is happening now. “I tell my law students, if you have a partnership, you need to be monitoring the behavior of your partners,” Drobac says. “You share liability.”
Philip Gordon, a Massachusetts employment lawyer, says that it is essential that companies aggressively address a pattern of public behavior like Weinstein’s. “You have an obligation to investigate, remediate and train — to fix the problem,” he says, adding that when it’s clear remediation won’t work, then termination may be the only option. Gordon points out that calling in outside investigators to document Weinstein’s behavior would have had another salutary result: “Once they investigated the workplace violence, how could they not have turned up the sexual harassment?”
Officers at Weinstein’s companies maintain they just didn’t know that for decades he used his position and enlisted subordinates to arrange for young women to be brought to hotel rooms, ostensibly for meetings, where he would appear in a bathrobe or naked and try to force them into sexual acts. These denials are no longer credible in light of the reporting by the New York Times, the New Yorker and others, which revealed internal discussions about payouts to victims of Weinstein’s sexual predation. TMZ says it obtained Weinstein’s 2015 employment contract, which stated that if the Weinstein Company had to pay settlements for his sexual or other misconduct, he must reimburse the company and pay an escalating set of fines: $1 million for the fourth and any subsequent instance.
When I related this to Drobac, she said: “That’s shocking. It demonstrates the company knew and was willing to sacrifice these targets for the profitability of the company. They were willing to have the predator indemnify his behavior and were willing to keep him within the company.”
The Weinstein Company put up with almost anything to keep its rainmaker. But Porath notes that such a leader can affect a business’s reputation. “When the word gets out about rudeness and instability, people have a negative impression of the brand, and that affects customer loyalty.”
Indeed. In a few short weeks, Weinstein has performed an amazing brand turnaround. His eponymous company — which experts say will probably have to be sold, even after it fired him — no longer conjures an image of intelligent, engaging, independent films; it now indelibly stands for one of the biggest creeps to ever stalk Hollywood.